A ‘metaverse’ is an idea. There is no one set definition of what a metaverse is, or should be. It can be compared to a virtual world, the future of the internet as a whole, or the future of augmented and virtual reality.
The notion of a metaverse is not a new concept and primarily, the idea has been explored in fiction. The Matrix is perhaps the most notable example of a world existing within a metaverse. In more recent history, the novel turned blockbuster, Ready Player One also captures the concept of a metaverse, where users enter a metaverse known as the ‘OASIS’.
Recently, the actualisation of the creation of a metaverse has been getting more traction. The tech giant, Facebook, recently put out a statement highlighting that they are starting their journey into creating a metaverse, and are creating 10,000 new jobs at Facebook across the EU in the process. Facebook refer to the metaverse as “a new phase of interconnected virtual experiences using technologies like virtual and augmented reality. At its heart is the idea that by a greater sense of “virtual presence”, interacting online can become much closer to the experience of interacting in person.
Metaverses in fiction are often within dystopian universes, where the real world is too bleak to live in and users prefer to, or are forced to, live in a metaverse. With the effects of global warming and the COVID-19 pandemic, the world we live in may be slowly creeping closer towards a more dystopian world similar to those portrayed in fiction. However, we do live in a real society, and individuals within our society are at the heart of that society, and so are their rights and freedoms.
Facebook are a company with a bad reputation for protecting user’s privacy. For Facebook, the more user data they collect, the more money they make. Facebook are undoubtedly a powerhouse of social media, and the amount of data they collect on individuals is beyond comprehension. With Facebook also being the parent company for WhatsApp and Instagram, they hold a monopoly over much of the online connections we have in our daily lives.
Whilst the concept of a metaverse is very unique and exciting, as a data protection consultancy firm we take a step back to consider what this really means for user’s privacy. Given that the metaverse is likely to be a process which will take 10-15 years to create, if it even is created at all, no one can be sure just how much user’s information will be collected through using the metaverse. However, what is clear, is that the amount of information which will be collected will be astronomically higher than what is already being collected by Facebook, which is already enormous.
Whilst people can be excited about the idea of a metaverse and what this could mean for the future of our society, there has to be strict controls around what Facebook can and cannot do with the data. We would like to see Data Protection Authorities working with and engaging Facebook throughout the creation of the metaverse so that data privacy is at the heart of it. Facebook have stated that this will be a collaborative effort and will not be build by a single company, whether that holds true, only time will tell. There are those who are sceptical around this statement by Facebook, and believe that this is a deflection from the whistleblower revelations from Frances Haugen, who leaked documents indicating that Facebook continuously prioritised growth over safety.
Ultimately, when thinking of the virtual world, we need to first focus on how individuals will be affected by it, and make sure that their rights and freedoms are protected.